Hats off to Darkest Hour

If Gary Oldman should carry off an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it will be well deserved and long overdue. As an ensemble piece, the movie is virtually flawless – a vehicle in which Oldman kills off any lingering doubts that he is Britain’s greatest living thespian with zeal, all the more so for being almost completely obscured by jowly prosthetics. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott-Thomas does a fine job of sparring with him in the role of Churchill’s rock, anchor and keeper, Clemmie.

For most of the film, the enemy that Churchill must confront is arguably the most watchable actor in Britain, Stephen Dillane, as the somewhat reedy, appeasing voice of the British Establishment in the form of Lord Halifax. The final addition to this leading foursome is the oft-overlooked Ronald Pickup, playing the part of the equally oft-overlooked Neville Chamberlain with both compassion and despair.

It is shot and acted beautifully, scripted reasonably well… indeed, even when watching it, one imagines that it will become a standard text on the period. Generations of children will be sat down to diligently watch this movie in school history lessons – and therein lies the problem. While the acting and the filming are all superb, the history is not.

We can overlook the fact that Churchill is depicted flying out to France in a C-47 (which didn’t exist then), instead of his D.H.95 Flamingo. Given the amount of CGI and special effects already in place, it wouldn’t have been too big an ask… but we can gloss over that. One CGI shot that was rather superfluous, however, was Churchill pontificating on a rooftop at night, watching a flight of four Hurricanes pass low overhead. Wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

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A de Havilland Flamingo – Churchill’s aircraft were not C-47s

This is but a prelude to the scene in which Churchill, alone and in the dark, begs President Roosevelt for destroyers and P-40 fighters. Yet the Royal Navy had ample resources at the time to see off the threat of the German Kriegsmarine. It is suggested that the Germans will come to Britain in high speed boats carrying 100 troops in each vessel – although these never existed. Churchill’s main concern was trying desperately to convince the French to send their navy across the Channel, lest it fall into German hands. In the end Churchill ordered the sinking of four French battleships, five destroyers and a seaplane tender when at port in Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria – and captured or sank those French vessels lying in British waters.

As for fighters, Churchill was fully focused upon stimulating the output of Britain’s own aircraft factories – starting with the vast white elephant at Castle Bromwich. Despite severe losses, the Hurricanes of the British Expeditionary Force had taken a mighty toll on the Luftwaffe as the Germans devoured Belgium and France, while belatedly the Spitfire was starting to appear in significant numbers. Quality was not in doubt but quantity was and, in Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill had an ardent quartermaster who ensured that the Battle of Britain ended with more fighters in front-line squadrons than it had begun with.

Not until Britain’s fight for immediate survival was long over did America grudgingly enter into the Lend-Lease programme… but try making a film about World War 2 these days that does not rely upon America’s righteous, guiding hand and see how far it gets through pre-production.

But all of these quibbles pale into insignificance next to the greatest red herring in the film: Churchill riding the District Line. This is the moment at which Oldman’s characterisation is powerless to stop Churchill being propelled into a new role: as a prototype for Tony Blair or David Cameron. You half-expect him to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and insist that the everyday Londoners call him Winston as he seeks their counsel.

The Darkest Hour

This segment of the film is an uncomfortable collection of anachronisms – a measure of what a modern British premier looks like to audiences around the world. Presenting this as historical fact – or as director Joe Wright prefers to call it ’emotional truth’ – is potentially disastrous not just for the film but also for its future viewers. In early 1940 more British people had died as a result of travelling in the blackout than from enemy action, and memories of the horrendous casualties of the Great War were still fresh. They supported appeasement. Appeasement at all costs. Appeasement however long and hard the road may be. When, later, Churchill visited the cities stricken by the Blitz he was booed.

Darkest Hour is a phenomenal piece of work by the cast – Oldman chief among them – and by the artists who created and lit every scene. For the most part it is exquisite. But mistaking its ’emotional truth’ for historical fact would be a grievous error. Enjoy it for what it is – a brilliant piece of movie making.

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A brief history of British motor sport: Part 3: 1945-1953

Welcome to 2018 and to the continuation of this little series of features on British achievements on two, three and four wheels. Or more. It’s not definitive by any stretch, but intended to prod the collective consciousness of what British engineers, teams, drivers and riders could do on their day – and may yet continue to.

As per Martin Field’s request, it is de-Schama’d and written in the past tense. For some reason this makes it rather harder to write – so there’s a secret of Simon Schama’s success revealed for you right there.

How much further this record will go on is not yet clear. The cut-off of the S&G is 1961 but perhaps for the sake of context we’ll go onwards, although the last 20 years makes for pretty depressing reading all things considered. Still, on we go into that period when British engineering was at its pinnacle, fuelled  by the necessity of war and honed through the absence of funding or raw materials in the age of austerity that came with peace. Let’s have a little look-see, shall we?

1945: 

  • British intelligence worker Cameron Earl investigated the pre-war German Grand Prix teams to mine them and their staff for information to help establish British supremacy in international motor racing. His findings were published in 1946 and used as a guide by many aspiring British designers.
  • The British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) established a fund to support renovation of the circuit and facilities at Le Mans damaged by Allied bombing in WW2.
  • English Racing Automobiles (ERA) evolved into British Racing Motors (BRM), revealing plans to build a supercharged 1.5-litre V16 car and run it along the lines of the great pre-war German teams.

 

1946:  

  • The 500 Club was formed for 500cc motorcycle-engined racing cars, eventually becoming known as Formula 3.
  • Hersham and Walton Motors (HWM) became a racing car constructor with George Abecassis and John Heath building a sports car on the foundations of a pre-war Alta.
  • Val des Terres hillclimb in Guernsey held its first event.
  • The wartime Boreham Airfield in Essex became racing venue.
  • Jaguar revealed the all-alloy XK120 road car, with very obvious potential for turning it into a potent racing car.

 

1947:  

  • The former RAF training airfield at Silverstone was selected as the new permanent home of British motor racing by the BRDC and RAC.
  • What remained of Aston Martin, which had been turned over to manufacturing aircraft components in World War 2, was bought by tractor manufacturer David Brown.
  • John Cobb raised the Land Speed Record to 394.196 mph in his pre-war Railton Special, with funding from Mobil. This record stands as the fastest achieved by an internal combustion engine and wheel-driven car.
  • Harold Daniell won the Senior TT on its first running after World War 2, riding a Norton. Bob Foster won the Junior race for Velocette.
  • Fergus Anderson won the first European Motorcycle Championship title for Britain after the war, taking 350cc honours for Velocette.
  • Stirling Moss won the Junior Car Club Rally in a BMW 328.
  • The Brooklands Automobile Racing Club and the Junior Car Club amalgamated as the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC). The new body relocated to new headquarters at the former RAF Westhampnett airfield on the grounds of the Duke of Richmond & Gordon’s estate at Goodwood.
  • The Darlington & District Motor Club started holding races on sections of RAF Croft airfield.
  • Former Napier racing engineer and Brooklands regular Charles Cooper, together with his son John, who worked on special engineering projects such as mini-submarines in WW2, formed the Cooper Car Company in Surbiton, after building a series of lightweight rear-engined racing cars using 500cc JAP motorcycle engines and Fiat Topolino sub-frames.
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In 1952 the Coopers revealed a streamlined car styled after the pre-war Auto Unions

1948:  

  • Silverstone hosted its first RAC Grand Prix to the newly-renamed Formula 1 regulations for 4.5-litre unsupercharged or 1.5-litre supercharged cars, organised by Colonel Barnes and Jimmy Brown. The circuit layout saw the perimeter track and runways in use, the cars turning infield at Copse up to a sharp hairpin before re-joining the perimeter at Maggots, then turning infield at Stowe and charging up the runway before another tight hairpin pointed them back towards Club. The race was won by Luigi Villoresi in a works-supported Maserati, with team mate Alberto Ascari 14 seconds behind. Bob Gerard’s ERA came third.
  • Ian Appleyard and Dick Weatherhead won the Rallye des Alpes in an SS100 Jaguar.
  • Artie Bell won the Senior TT for Norton, Freddie Frith winning the Junior TT.
  • Freddie Frith won the 350cc European Motorcycle Championship for Velocette while another British rider, Maurice Cann, won the 250cc title for Italian manufacturer Moto Guzzi.
  • Goodwood Circuit opened with its first meeting organised by the BARC.
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The first Silverstone grand prix layout

1949:  

  • Silverstone hosted its second Formula 1 race on a revised circuit using only the perimeter road except a chicane running on to the runway at Club corner. It was the first British Grand Prix, so named after the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) granted the RAC’s race Grande Épreuve status: equal with that of the French and Italian races as the most prestigious events of their kind. It was won by Baron ‘Toulo’ de Graffenried in a Maserati. Raymond Mays demonstrated the BRM V16, built and operated along the guidelines from Cameron Earl’s study of the pre-war German teams.
  • Goodwood hosted its first Formula 1 race, the Glover Trophy, won by Reg Parnell in a Maserati.
  • British industrialist Tony Vandervell, producer of ‘thin wall’ bearings and an early investor in BRM, began to grow wary of the ambitious V16 project’s potential and negotiated with one of his customers, Enzo Ferrari, for the purchase of one of the Italian’s Formula 1 racing cars. The car was painted green and renamed the ‘Thin Wall Special’ for use in Formula Libre races and occasional grand prix outings.
  • Britain’s Board of Trade unsuccessfully attempted to block the import of foreign racing cars. Tony Vandervell argued that a supercharged Ferrari was required as a development mule for improved engine bearings for the British motor industry. A compromise suggested by the BoT was that the car should only be in the country for a maximum of 12 months and only used for testing work rather than competition. Vandervell then offered the customs duty and tax that was levied on the car’s purchase price for the government to shut up and go away – which worked! It also set a precedent that ensured very few aspiring racers could afford to import their cars and would have to rely on home-built machinery.
  • Motorcycle racing commenced at Mallory Park.
  • Lord Selsdon entered a Ferrari 166 MM into the Le Mans 24 Hours, which claimed victory having been driven for almost the entire duration of the race by Luigi Chinetti. An HRG won the 1.5-litre class driven by Eric Thompson and Jack Fairman.
  • Ken Wharton and Joy Cooke won the Tulip Rally in a Ford Anglia.
  • Donald Healey and Ian Appleyard won the 3000cc class of the Rallye des Alpes in a Healey Silverstone. Betty Haig won the Coupe des Dames in an MG TC.
  • Harold Daniell became the first rider to win Isle of Man TT races before and after the war, claiming the Senior TT event for Norton, while the Junior TT fell to Freddie Frith for the second year running.
  • Les Graham won the inaugural 500cc World Motorcycle Championship for AJS, while Freddie Frith won the inaugural 350cc World Motorcycle Championship with five wins in five races with Velocette. Ian Oliver and Denis Jenkinson claimed the Sidecar title for Norton.
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The Jaguar XK120 won rallies and races with alacrity

1950:  

  • Silverstone hosted the 11th Grand Prix d’Europe, the first ever points-scoring round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. The occasion was attended by HRH King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two royal princesses with all pomp and the band of the grenadier guards in attendance. The race was won by Dr. Giuseppe Farina’s Alfa Romeo.
  • BRM made long-overdue debut at Silverstone, although the mighty V16 cars did not shine. Only one car was in a fit state to take the start, driven by Raymond Sommer, but it shattered a driveshaft on the startline and pennies were thrown by the booing crowd as it was wheeled off.
  • Autosport magazine was founded by Gregor Grant and John Bolster, supplementing the monthly output of Motor Sport.
  • Ian and Pat Appleyard won the Rallye des Alpes in their Jaguar XK120.
  • Stirling Moss won the Daily Express 1,000-Mile Rally of Great Britain in an Aston Martin DB2.
  • Sydney Allard won the 8-litre class and finished third overall at the Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing the car with American driver Tom Cole. Aston Martin finished first and second in the 3-litre class, with the Jowett Jupiter of Tommy Wisdom and Tommy Wise beating the MG TC of George Philipps and Eric Winterottom to the 1.5-litre class.
  • HWM built a new Formula 2 car with the pre-war Alta engine, performing well.
  • After strenuous lobbying, Brands Hatch owner Joe Francis was convinced to lay a permanent asphalt surface at Brands Hatch for 500cc motor racing.
  • The second Glover Trophy race for Formula 1 cars at Goodwood was won by Reg Parnell again, in his Maserati.
  • Motor racing spread westward when motorcycle racing began on the runways of Thruxton airfield and on the perimeter road of RAF Castle Combe.
  • Jaguar revealed a highly-evolved racing model of its celebrated sports car, the XK120-C, better known as the ‘C-Type’.
  • Rising 500cc racing star Stirling Moss announced his presence on the international stage with a sensational drive to victory in the revived RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in a Jaguar XK120.
  • Newly-promoted Clubman rider Geoff Duke stunned the motorcycling establishment by winning the Isle of Man TT Senior race for Norton using the new ‘Featherbed’ frame.
  • Ken Wharton won the Tulip Rally in a Ford V8 Pilot, with J. Graham Reece winning Class 2 in a Ford Anglia and Joy Cooke claiming the Coupe des Dames in another Ford V8 Pilot. Wharton also won the Lisbon International Rally.
  • Italian manufacturers dominated most classes of the World Motorcycle Championship but Bob Foster maintained Velocette’s unbroken run in the 350cc class, while Ian Oliver retained the Sidecar title for Norton with Italy’s Lorenzo Dobelli alongside him.

 

1951: 

  • Silverstone hosted the third British Grand Prix, ending with Scuderia Ferrari’s first world championship Formula 1 win, taken by Argentine driver José Froilán Gonzáles in a Ferrari 375. The BRM finished fifth.
  • Jaguar won the Le Mans 24 Hours, with Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead sharing a Jaguar C-Type. They became the first British drivers in a British car to win since Johnny Hindmarsh and Luis Fontès in their Lagonda in 1935. In a brilliant weekend for Britain, Aston Martin won the 3-litre class and a Jowett Jupiter took the 1.5-litre class win.
  • Stirling Moss won his second RAC Tourist Trophy, this time at the wheel of a works Jaguar C-Type.
  • Ian and Pat Appleyard won the Tulip Rally in their Jaguar XK120.
  • The RAC Rally was revived as a 1000-mile run to Bournemouth from various starting points across the UK. An award for ‘Best Performance’ was made rather than declaring a win, and it was handed to Ian and Pat Appleyard in their Jaguar XK120.
  • Geoff Duke and Norton dominated the World Motorcycle Championship, claiming both the 350cc and 500cc titles, winning both the Senior and Junior TT on the way. Ian Oliver won his third straight Sidecar world championship for Norton, with Lorenzo Dobelli riding beside him.
  • Frazer Nash became the first British manufacturer to win the Targa Florio, with a car driven by Franco Cortese.
  • Aston Martin employed pre-war Auto Union technical chief Robert Eberan von Eberhorst to redesign its sports cars, resulting in the DB3.

 

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Jaguar won its first Le Mans 24 Hours in 1951, 16 years after the last British triumph

1952:

  • The BRDC took over the lease of Silverstone Circuit.
  • Goodwood became the first circuit in Britain to race at night, like Le Mans, with the inaugural Nine Hour race for sports cars. Floodlights were put in place to illuminate the grandstands and pits, the kerbs were given a coat of luminous paint, a beer tent was erected (although due to post-war licensing laws it had to stop serving before the race ended) and sponsorship came from theNews of the World. The event was not well attended by the public, for whom nine hours was simply too long, but it was won by Aston Martin’s works team after the Jaguars faltered.
  • Lotus cars was founded by engineers Colin Chapman, Colin Dare and investors Michael and Nigel Allen, opening a factory in Hornsey, North London.
  • Sydney Allard won the Monte Carlo Rally in his self-built car, with Stirling Moss finishing second in a Sunbeam shared with Desmond Scannell and John Cooper.
  • Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom won the 5-litre class and finished third overall at Le Mans in a Nash-Healey in the Le Mans 24 Hours, with a Jowett Jupiter again winning the 1.5-litre class.
  • Godfrey Imhof and Betty Frayling won the RAC Rally in a Cadillac-powered Allard.
  • Ken Wharton won the Tulip Rally in a Ford Consul.
  • John Cobb was killed attempting to beat the Water Speed Record on Loch Ness in his jet-powered boat Crusader.
  • Maurice Gatsonides won the Alpine Rally overall in a Jaguar XK120, with George Murray Frame winning the up-to-3-litre class in a Sunbeam.
  • P. Denham-Cookes won the Scottish Rally in a Jaguar XK120.
  • The British Grand Prix at Silverstone was won by Alberto Ascari in his first dominant world championship season to Formula 2 regulations, driving a works Ferrari 500 F2. He finished a lap clear of team mate Piero Taruffi, who was a further lap clear of Mike Hawthorn’s Cooper-Bristol in third.
  • A Jaguar XK120 won the Liège-Rome-Liège Marathon de la Route in the hands of Jean Heurtaux and Marceau Crespin
  • Former spy Cameron Earl died after crashing ERA R14B on a test run at the Motor Industry Research Association track (MIRA) in Warwickshire.
  • HWM closed its Formula 2 team.
  • Scuderia Ferrari attended the Easter meeting at Goodwood, where British youngster Mike Hawthorn challenged the mighty Italians in a home-prepared Cooper.
  • Stirling Moss made his Grand Prix debut.
  • Charterhall Circuit opened on another ex-RAF airfield in Berwickshire.
  • Geoff Duke was beaten to the 500cc motorcycle world championship but retained honours for Norton in the 350cc category, while Cyril Smith triumphed for Norton in the sidecar class, joined by both Bob Clements and Les Nutt in the sidecar on points-scoring rounds.

 

1953:

  • Maurice Gatsonides and Peter Worledge won the Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Zephyr.
  • Scuderia Ferrari signed Mike Hawthorn to drive for the team in Formula 1 and sports car races. At his first Grand Prix for the team, in Argentina, the Englishman was honoured with a bright green paint job. In arguably his greatest race, Hawthorn beat Juan Manuel Fangio in ‘the race of the century’: the fraught French Grand Prix at Reims, in which they passed one another several times per lap all the way to the flag.
  • Aston Martin won the second Goodwood Nine Hours. Without the same level of off-track excitement as could be found at Le Mans, the News of the World had abandoned its sponsorship and it was sparsely attended.
  • Petrol rationing ended in Europe and branded fuels went on sale again, leading to massive investment in motor racing. Shell launched its first ‘premium’ fuel since 1939, promoting it through racing success with Scuderia Ferrari.
  • Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt won the Le Mans 24 Hours in their Jaguar C-Type, despite having been excluded after qualifying and retiring to an estaminet to drown their sorrows. Ken Wharton and Laurence Mitchell took honours in the 2-litre class in a Frazer Nash. Le Mans was a points-scoring round of the inaugural FIA World Sportscar Championship.
  • Alberto Ascari won the second and final British Grand Prix held to Formula 2 regulations at Silverstone Circuit. Ascari’s works Ferrari 500 F2 finished a minute clear of Juan Manuel Fangio’s works Maserati, while Mike Hawthorn’s challenge was blunted by a gigantic spin and other issues that dropped him three laps behind.
  • Ian and Pat Appleyard won the RAC Rally in their Jaguar XK120. George Hartwell and F.W. Scott won the Touring car class up to 2.6 litres in a Sunbeam-Talbot and Denis Scott the over 2.6-litre class in a Jaguar Mk.VII.
  • A Jowett Javelin won the Tulip Rally in the hands of Count Hugo van Zulyen.
  • D. Airth and R. M. Collinge won the ‘less than £800’ class in the Coronation Safari Rally in a Standard Vanguard.
  • An Allard won the third 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland in the hands of Vilho Hietanen and Olov Hixen
  • A Jaguar XK120 won the Acropolis Rally in the hands of Nick Papamichael and S. Dimitrakos.
  • After a year off in 1952, the RAC Tourist Trophy counted as a points-scoring round of the inaugural FIA World Sportscar Championship. It was held at Dundrod once again and won by Peter Collins and Pat Griffith in an Aston Martin.
  • Former 8th Air Force bomber airfield Snetterton in Norfolk became a licenced circuit
  • Oulton Park circuit was formally paved and opened.
  • Crystal Palace circuit reopened for motor racing after wartime bomb damage and other wartime materiel was finally cleared away, allowing a 1.39-mile layout to be used.
  • The Monaco Grand Prix was staged as a sports car race as the Automobile Club de Monaco had no interest in holding a Formula 2 event. The race was won by Stirling Moss in a Jaguar C-Type.
  • British riders reigned supreme in world championship motorcycle racing – but they rode for foreign manufacturers. Geoff Duke won the 500cc title on a Gilera and Fergus Anderson won the 350cc title for Moto Guzzi. Eric Oliver won his fourth sidecar title for Norton, with Stanley Dibben alongside him.
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Ferrari’s young British star Mike Hawthorn at the 1953 British GP

A new perspective on the past

Marina Amaral is an extremely talented lady.  Based in her native Brazil, she has mastered the art of retouching black and white photographs in order to bring them to vivid life for the modern era. Her work varies from profound subjects to the most mundane and she is accepting commissions to breathe a little colour back into whatever subjects her clientele might wish to revive.

It is incredibly hard to convey the relevance of even our recent past to the generations coming through.  To a vast majority of people raised in the digital age, everything is disposable and nothing is sacred. If something cannot be related to and offer tangible pleasures then all too often it is discarded. Marina’s work makes the other-worldliness of old photographs fresh and challenges the eye.

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Marina Amaral reveals the man behind the moustache: Neville Chamberlain arrives home from Munich

In the 1980s, space was filled in the early evening schedules of BBC2 with silent ‘shorts’ by Harold Lloyd, ‘Buster’ Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Children would watch them after Grange Hill and Crackerjack had finished in preference to the early evening news – the S&G among them – and wonder what it must have been like when humans could only see the world in black and white.

Today such films are never put in front of a youngster unless by accident.  As a result, the unbridled joy of watching grown-ups wallop each other and fall over, let alone learning about the broad palate of emotions that they are sensing in the world through the elegant mime of truly great actors, is denied to them.

Having spent far too many hours in museums this year, often with tides of teenagers ebbing and flowing around the corridors, it was clear that the relationship between past and present is becoming fractured. School history lessons are a drudge of irrelevance to most kids. In school, the subject appears to have been boiled down to putting on fancy dress and then writing about how they believe people felt.

Skills like Marina’s offer a unique opportunity for families, schools and publishers to redress the balance somewhat. That is a truly valuable resource to have.

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The Red Baron emerges in another of Marina Amaral’s pieces

 

A great blog for a momentous anniversary

Contrails filled the sky over England - and elsewhere - 75 years ago

Contrails filled the sky over England – and elsewhere – 75 years ago

We are fast approaching the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, meaning that much will be said, written and broadcast between now and October – including here at the S&G. An abundance of Spitfires and Hurricanes, a Blenheim and some Gladiators will take to the skies and much will be said about ‘The Few’ – no matter how inaccurate some of those comments will be. Air raid sirens will wail and Churchill’s words will growl.

Before we hurl ourselves into the occasion, however, feel free to savour a truly remarkable blog about another campaign in the summer of 1940, during which the fate of an island nation was plunged into jeopardy – and with it the course of human kind: Malta GC 70.

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

In 2011 the enterprising individual behind this blog began putting up posts that told the reader exactly what had happened on the same day 70 years earlier – how many bombs fell, how many aircraft flew, how many shells were fired and how many casualties there were. This was to mark 70 years since the peak of the Battle of Malta and to build towards the commemorations of 70 years since the Maltese were recognised with the George Cross.

Now the blog is back in action, adding to the story by putting up daily details of the first weeks of the siege, to mark 75 years since the moment that Mussolini belatedly declared war on Britain and attempted to restore the Roman empire in the Mediterranean.

It is an astonishing body of work that tells far more than the legend of Faith, Hope and Charity. It brings to vivid life the daily realities for the Maltese, British and Empire nationals who were caught up in the maelstrom – and, thanks to the option to receive posts by email, provides a thought-provoking and entirely welcome window on the past almost every day of the week. Enjoy – and do come back to the S&G when you have a moment!

Steaming in to Didcot

In the pursuit of another enquiry, I happened to stop off at the Didcot Railway Centre, which looks like an ideal way to spend the day. Whether or not the long, hot British summer continues, one should hope that the place becomes a goldmine for its dedicated supporters.

Didcot in the sunshine is a spectacular spot

Sitting just to the south of Oxford on the A34, Didcot became part of the Great Western Railway network in 1839. A major station was built and it became a vital staging post for troop and materiel movements during both World Wars. By the late 1960s car ownership had taken a heavy toll on the station’s usefulness and so a small and simple platform, Didcot Parkway, was retained while most of the rest of the site was given over to commuter car parking.

Fortunately for posterity the main engine shed, several sidings and buildings were saved by the Great Western Society, and now you can while away an afternoon drinking in the sights and sounds of the old GWR.

A decent sized area has been preserved by the Society – this is the entrance

The engine shed is undoubtedly the main attraction at Didcot

One rather striking addition to the displays is the wartime air raid shelter – which also provides a welcome respite from whatever the weather is throwing at you on any given day. It’s a very solid fortification – and rightly so, as railway lines were a valuable target to both sides.

Outside the railwaymen’s air raid shelter

Inside the wartime bunker

Unsurprisingly, Dicot has been used by a plethora of production companies. Everything from Inspector Morse to Sherlock Holmes and about forty thousand wartime dramas and kids TV shows. At the moment the Society is plugging the fact that the locomotive shed was used as Moscow’s main station in the recent remake of Anna Kerenina, with Jude Law and Keira Knightley.

If you’ve watched anything with old trains in it… Didcot was probably involved

Here are some of the many artefacts that caught my eye. At a fiver per adult entry won’t break the bank, but do bear in mind that the car park is extortionate, being intended for commuter use. That said, if you visit on the weekend and pack the car with children then it gets considerably more cost-effective.

Period luggage and accessories make a nice feature

Some of the First Class travellers’ essentials

GWR was your passport to the Welsh Riviera

The main event is the locomotive collection, many of which still steam and go through their paces on open days

During World War 2 the railways took on a dour look but performed vital service

After World War 2 the ‘Big Four’ railway lines – GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern were nationalised and became British Railways, launching 1000 jokes about poor catering

Watercress Line goes back in time

In a fit of feeling that perhaps we were, as a family, ignoring the wonders of steam we went to the Watercress Line’s ‘War on the Line’ event a couple of years ago. It’s one of the highlights of the year for the – ahem – army of re-enactors who spend their weekends in all weathers getting themselves all dolled up as servicemen and women and scaring small children with their impromptu renditions of Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

The Watercress Line runs through four immaculately restored stations between Alton and Alresford in Hampshire and features a number of specialist events, from Thomas & Friends for the youngsters to real ale weekends for chaps with a fondness for sandals and facial topiary. Or maybe Inspector Morse. However, for one weekend each year the entire line is given over to the sights and sounds of the Home Front in 1939-45.

And I mean the whole line…

Now come on - you don't see that every day

Now come on – you don’t see that every day

You never know who will be on your carriage

You never know who will be on your carriage

Once you’ve accepted that the 21st Century got left behind in the car park, things soon become startlingly normal, being back in the mid-1940s. One starts to wonder whether any of the people around you own a television. Or a pair of jeans. The thing is that after going to all the trouble of getting kitted out to the enth degree of accuracy, the allure of modern dress must dwindle significantly.

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

On our visit the American GIs were far and away the most numerous of all the social groups sculling around the Hampshire countryside. Perhaps it’s the desire to be over-sexed and over-paid, or the popularity of Saving Private Ryan. All that can be sure is that every member of the re-enactment congregation is casting an informed eye over their companions and quick to spot the slightest faux pas.

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

For anyone thinking of going to the Goodwood Revival, the dedication of the visitors to the Watercress Line is a salutary lesson. Not much here came from eBay or a joke shop. In fact one does feel a touch concerned in the summer sunshine that the pervading scent of mothballs might suddenly ignite into a ten mile long fireball…

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Ryan's privates need saving again, I see...

Ryan’s privates need saving again, I see…

Going to an event like this and not being in period schmutter doesn’t feel altogether odd. Everyone’s just pleased to see you, delighted if you take an interest and getting on with getting on with their weekend. The Watercress Line is an astonishing venue because it filters out pretty well everything that you might expect of modern day-to-day life over such a vast expanse of this green and pleasant land.

I don't know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

I don’t know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

At every station there are things to see

At every station there are things to see

It really is a fantastic day out, with not a stick-on moustache in sight. Why not pop over to the Watercress Line and book your tickets for this year’s show? You never know where it might take you…

The jitterbug club stops for tea

The jitterbug club stops for tea

SAS call in for a cheap day return

SAS call in for a cheap day return

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day

American idol – The Great Waldo Pepper (new link to film clip)

If you want movies about aircraft done properly, better get a pilot to make them. That’s why The Great Waldo Pepper is such a joy – because it was the work of George Roy Hill.

A feisty presence in the Hollywood firmament, Hill was something of an outsider among the great and the good of La-La-Land. As a child inthe 1920s and 1930s he idolised the great fighter pilots of World War 1, and when war broke out once again he enlisted as a pilot – flying a cargo aircraft around the Pacific in WW2, but becoming a nightfighter ‘ace’ in the Korean war.

Upon leaving the military, Hill worked as a journalist and then took an interest in theatre. He moved quickly to television and then on to making movies, with his debut coming in a 1962 adaptation of A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Willams. An up-and-down career then hit paydirt with A Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, which was followed by his best-loved hit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The leading men on Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, soon learned not to fall foul of their tempestuous director’s strong work ethic. Late arrival on set would see guilty parties strapped in to Hill’s 1930 Waco biplane and subjected to a bracing aerobatic flight.

“If you weren’t on time, he’d take you up in his airplane,” Newman later recalled. “Scared the bejesus out of us.”

It was Newman’s co-star, Robert Redford, with whom Hill’s other enduring successes were achieved. First came The Great Gatsby and then probably the most personal film of Hill’s career in the form of The Great Waldo Pepper, a paean to the barnstorming days of the 1920s aviation boom in which Redford plays a charming, roguish pilot who saw too little of World War 1 but tells a good tale and trades on his matinee idol looks to good effect.

Together with talents such as Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin and the glamour of both Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, this is an oft-overlooked gem of a movie and one that is perfect for S&G readers. So enjoy this little clip as Hill takes Waldo to Hollywood…